Saturday, August 11, 2007

"The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery." By Wendy Moore.

John Hunter was the younger brother of famous anatomist/surgeon William Hunter. John, born February 14, 1728, was the 10th child born to a struggling farm family who lived in the countryside south of Glasgow. Possibly dyslexic, he did not thrive on formal education, but his curiosity was most engaged by observations of the natural world.

At the age of 20, John went to London to join his older brother William. William had established a popular and profitable anatomy school in Covent Garden -- the first of its kind in England.

John's first job for William's school was to be put in charge of obtaining cadavers for dissection. Anatomists and their representatives would fight family members for possession of the corpses of executed criminals. There weren't enough criminals to supply the needs of William's school, hence John had to resort to body snatching -- either himself with the help of students, or by employing professional "resurrectionists."

Anatomy course were scheduled from October through May in order to take advantage of cooler weather retarding decay.

John became fascinated with comparative anatomy, developing relationships with keepers of various menageries and animal dealers to purchase the corpses of any exotic animals that died in their keeping. He also gained surgical experience by joining the army as a battlefield surgeon. He was posted to France in 1761, and did not return to London until 1763.

After his time in the army, John turned to the neglected field of dentistry to bring in income. Dentistry was considered beneath proper physicians and surgeons of the day, but John used it as an opportunity to experiment with transplanting teeth from healthy (but poor) donors into the mouths of the wealthy. He also began to earn fees performing autopsies (the significance of which was beginning to be recognized).

Other experimental endeavors included self-inoculation with (and treatment for!) venereal diseases, and assisting an infertile couple by means of artificial insemination.

His interests in comparative anatomy and fossils led him to write about the "Great Chain of Being," and eventually to toy with ideas close to the concept of evolution.

In the autumn of 1770, 21-year old Edward Jenner (who would later develop the first smallpox vaccine) became John Hunter's first house pupil at St. George's Hospital.

In the summer of 1771, John Hunter married his fiancée of seven years, Anne Home. He was 43 to her 29. Hunter's new wife pursued her social life and raised their children surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of her husband's anatomical and physiological research. In one incident in 1772, a visiting explorer had returned from northern Canada with a family of Inuit. All came to dinner at the Hunters. The head of the Inuit family wandered about the house and grounds, only to stumble over a glass case full of human bones. He demanded to know if they belonged to previous Inuit guests who had been killed and eaten. Hunter assured him that all the bones belonged to executed criminals (even though this wasn't strictly true).

John Hunter died in 1792, having a fatal heart attack during an argument with his colleagues at St. George's Hospital. Tragically, many of his papers and unpublished manuscripts fell into hostile hands, and were destroyed. In 1859, his remains were moved to Westminster Abbey where he was re-interred with a second funeral, and a plaque from the Royal College of Surgeons.